The first feature from writer-director Cory Finley, “Thoroughbreds” is a darkly comic tale — shot through with the hard-boiled fatalism of film noir — about two teenage girls in an affluent Connecticut suburb of New York.
The troubled Amanda (Olivia Cooke of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) has been struggling to rejoin society after her mutilation of a prized horse, an act that has turned her into a social outcast. Her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) lives with her mother (Francie Smith) and her coldly arrogant stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), in a huge mansion where she seems to have it all: a refined lifestyle, a prestigious internship and good college prospects.
As the film opens, a tenuous reunion has been engineered by Amanda’s mother, who is paying Lily to tutor (and befriend) her disturbed daughter. Despite the financial arrangement, an uneasy alliance develops between the two girls. Amanda — who speaks in deadpan because she has lost the ability to feel emotion — impresses Lily with her jaded outlook, and Amanda soon plants the seed of a solution to Lily’s problematic relationship with Mark. This proposal leads them to a small-time drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles) with whom they enter into negotiations about taking on their dirty work.
Cooke — so terrific as a naive teen in “Bates Motel” — succeeds here in a completely different mode, her wide, sensitive eyes revealing a chilling emptiness that suggests Cristina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams from the “Addams Family” films. But she’s also got great comic timing, as when Amanda feigns a smile or uses what she calls “the technique” to produce crocodile tears. As Lily, Taylor-Joy makes for an apt foil, dropping her veneer of propriety, with Amanda’s encouragement, to become a formidable and manipulative presence of her own. Yelchin’s performance — grizzled, neurotic — is sadly on-the-nose, making us feel as if we’re watching the last act of a troubled young man.
A psychological thriller set in a young-adult milieu, “Thoroughbreds” was inspired by such classic examples of film noir as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” both of which Finley says he went to for inspiration while writing his script. Yet the movie’s plot machinations and brooding tone are, at times, a little too clever. And Erik Friedlander’s anxious, percussive score reinforces what we already know: These are troubled people.
Still, the music suits sound design that turns the film’s luxurious setting — an estate bathed in sterile, almost institutional light by cinematographer Lyle Vincent — into a kind of creepy funhouse, one in which the thudding, cardiovascular pulse of Mark’s unseen rowing machine creates a tension that we fully expect to turn violent. A vicious satire of the upper class and its discontents, “Thoroughbreds” paints a dark picture of a generation that, because it has been denied nothing, has come to value nothing.